The Problems With Soccer

John appears to have already stirred the passions of the soccer fanatics with his rant on its lack of scoring. While I generally agree, I’d like to elaborate with soccer’s most egregious offenses to an American sports obsessive:

5. The Imprecision of Time

Certain sports, and I’m thinking mainly of basketball, are almost too precise with time, disrupting the rhythm of a game to determine down to a tenth of a second the proper amount of time on the clock. Soccer takes it in the opposite direction. It’s 90 minutes, give or take extra time, which itself is approximated. This doesn’t bother me too much, except for how, at the end of a match, the referee often allows a team one last push toward the net before blowing his whistle. This is the equivalent of a football ref thinking, “Well, time has run out, but the Colts DO have the ball in the red zone…”.

4. The Flopping

Nothing infuriates me more in soccer than players who flop to the turf, roll around for a bit while wailing, then get up and sprint hard after the ball. The fact that this flopping is often an effective means for drawing a foul only makes it worse. Plus, it cheapens the effect when someone actually does get hurt. Gamesmanship is all well and good, but only up to a point.

3. Playing for a Tie

I can almost–almost–accept the prevalence of ties in soccer. But I can’t accept the idea that teams often play to tie. It goes against every aspect of my competitive athletic being. Cue Herm Edwards! You play to win the game! And you can’t sit here and tell me the U.S. or Uruguay (against France) really played to win those games. I understand that it’s early in the World Cup, and that teams undergo a prolonged feeling-out process because they know you can’t win the Cup in the first match but you can lose it. At the same time, seeing a team drop 10 defenders back in an effort to gain a single point in the standings runs contrary to the very notion of sport.

2. Limited Substitutions

I understand that subbing has never been a big part of soccer; it wasn’t even allowed until the 1970s in the World Cup. I also get that conditioning is an important facet of the sport. But wouldn’t the quality of play be raised significantly if substitutions were unlimited? Imagine if you could only sub a few times every basketball game, to the point where several players played all 48 minutes. Don’t you think the fourth quarter would be substantially less exciting because everyone is so tired? Shots would be missed short, turnovers would increase. This is what happens at the end of soccer games! If you allow for periodic substitutions, then the best players will be fresher at the end of the match and have a better chance of scoring.

1. The Disproportionate Outcome of Fouls

Most of the time when someone is fouled in soccer, his team gets a free kick from the spot of the foul. This gives the team a slight advantage, as it can run a set piece. But it’s more or less the equivalent of inbounding the ball under the basket in basketball. Now, when a team gets fouled in the box, it gets a penalty kick, which is pretty much like giving it a goal.* And considering how few and far between goals are, this is like making a basketball team inbound every time they get fouled, unless they get fouled in the paint, at which point they get a free throw worth 50 points.

*There are at least six spots you can fire a penalty kick, and the goalie can only guess to try to stop one. It is really easy to make a penalty kick.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nixonradio on June 16, 2010 at 6:45 PM

    Points 5-3 are fair enough – I think most soccer fans would agree with those, though not to the extent of them being “egregious offences” (and it took me a while to work out that “flopping” meant diving…)

    The last two, though, are ridiculous. You used to be able to make 11 changes in friendly games, but fans hated it – in practice, there was almost no impetus for anyone to do anything or try too hard in the first half, knowing they were about to be hauled off. Also, you badly overstate the problem of players getting tired – most goals are actually scored in the final minutes of soccer matches because the defence gets tired too, leading to sloppy play and opportunities. Being able to last the distance is part of the game; you presumably wouldn’t recommend that marathons be run in shifts by eight-man teams, as that way everyone would be at their best?

    And the penalty thing… what the hell? Leaving aside your assertion that penalties are easy (best tell Roberto Baggio, then), the whole reason the 18-yard box is painted there is to stop people being fouled close to the goal, rather than to disproportionately punish fouls that aren’t dealt with so harshly elsewhere.

    Penalties are given for fouls in the box – overwhelmingly one of two fouls: deliberate handball, or a professional (i.e. cynical, physical, no attempt to touch the ball) foul – because the attacking team has been denied a potential goalscoring opportunity, so the penalty kick is awarded to set that right. You can’t say for definite that the attacker would definitely have scored, but then you can’t say for definite the penalty will result in a goal – the success rate is well below the five out of six you posit – and for the sake of the game, fouls in the box have to be strongly discouraged. If you know you’re liable to give away a penalty, you’re much less likely to go charging in in the box, or deliberately palm it away. If you only risked giving away a free kick, pff, why not take his legs?

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on June 16, 2010 at 7:31 PM

      My rebuttals:

      First, on substitutions: I for one don’t see why the possibility a player will be substituted for would eliminate his motivation to play hard. (If anything, it strikes me that it should be the opposite.) You yourself admit that the play gets sloppy toward the end. I’m not advocating wholesale subbing all the time (certainly not the ludicrous model from hockey), but simply that a player can be given a breather from time to time so as to be fresher down the stretch. And if lasting the distance is part of the game, then eliminate subbing altogether. Don’t compromise on it.

      On PKs: I’m not against PKs, per se. (Although come on, they’re easy. They were made 75% of the time in the World Cup from ’82-98 [see: http://www.journal.lapen.org.mx/May09/LAJPE%20239%20preprint%20f.pdf%5D. Everyone remembers Roberto Baggio because he missed one, in the same way that Americans remember Nick Anderson for missing those four free throws in the ’95 NBA Finals). My problem is that they have a disproportionately huge impact on the game. Take the game between Serbia and Ghana. Twenty-six fouls were committed, but only one of them decided the game. Ghana, in fact, committed more fouls during the course of the game. I understand that you need to discourage fouling in the box (no one would EVER score otherwise), but a single foul in the box shouldn’t consistently determine the outcomes of matches.

      Reply

      • Posted by nixonradio on June 17, 2010 at 3:36 AM

        On subs, I’m only reporting what actually happened when it was tried out; it was unexpectedly rubbish. (See also “golden goal”).

        On penalties: they aren’t anywhere near as easy as you keep insisting they are, but let’s gloss over that. “Twenty-six fouls were committed, but only one of them decided the game. Ghana, in fact, committed more fouls during the course of the game”… You still don’t seem to get why this is a decidedly odd way of looking at it. Not all fouls are the same in soccer. Fouls near the goal can change the course of the game, whereas fouls elsewhere on the field usually don’t, hence the penalty rule and the box being painted there as a warning of the dire consequences. The penalty is a way of redressing the wrong that was done, i.e. possibly stopping a score. The penalty is often more likely to result in a goal than the original chance, but the punishment has to be harsh or it wouldn’t be a deterrent (as you yourself have acknowledged.) Seeing it as “26 fouls, 25 unpunished, 1 game-changing” is like seeing a guy steal 25 candy bars and then rob a bank, and wondering why he was only sent to prison for the bank job.

        Reply

  2. Posted by John S on June 16, 2010 at 6:50 PM

    I would agree with nixonradio’s point about limited substitutions not really being a fair criticism. Baseball, after all, has fairly strict substitution rules, and that merely affects strategy. Soccer is similarly designed to test endurance, so limiting subs makes sense.

    I also take issue with you singling out soccer for flopping. Are you really gonna watch the NBA Finals and then act as if flops are unique to soccer, or even particularly egregious there? Faked injuries and selling calls are an unfortunate part of sports, but hard to control. The NFL’s TO rule w/r/t injuries in the last 2 minutes, for example, often seems particularly unfair.

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on June 16, 2010 at 7:36 PM

      I never said flopping/diving was unique to soccer; it’s just a LOT more prevalent (and tolerated). If a player dives in hockey, he either has a penalty called on him or he gets drawn into a fight later in the game.

      And the NFL’s rule is proper; most players can get off the field if needed in the time between plays (unless, you know, they’re seriously hurt).

      Reply

  3. Posted by A Schachter on June 16, 2010 at 8:00 PM

    Perhaps, if Fifa changed the scoring rules and they let in extra points for each goal, say . . . . like football, (American) Americans, one of the few countries that don’t “get” soccer would be appeased, but why would the ENTIRE (if I may abuse absolutes, as you do, in your post) world make changes in an incredibly popular sport to appease one country’s ignorance? PKs do NOT consistently determine the outcome of matches, nor do they occur in EVERY game.

    “I understand that you need to discourage fouling in the box (no one would EVER score otherwise), but a single foul in the box shouldn’t consistently determine the outcomes of matches.”

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on June 16, 2010 at 8:03 PM

      You misconstrued my point. I don’t say that EVERY match includes a penalty kick. I said that if fouling in the box were not discouraged, it would be very difficult to score, because defenders would routinely foul. When PKs do occur, they frequently determine the outcome of matches, considering how few goals are scored.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Rodrigo Caetano on June 17, 2010 at 12:42 AM

    First of all i would like to congratulate you on this fair post, different from the last one from your friend John. You showed and defended your points well enough, tough me, as a Brazilian, have to disagree with some of them.

    1 – The Disproportionate Outcome of Fouls –

    The only reason a team is allowed a penalty kick if one of it’s players is fouled inside the box is to make the game more easy to play. You see, if it wasn’t for this rule, every time some one would get close to the goal, there would be a foul, because, most of the times, scoring from a free kick can be more tricky and difficult than scoring while the game is actually on. Therefore, that area created in the proximities of the goal is something that helps the game to flow and also keeps it cleaner. But even so, in some situations where a goal is really clear, some players DO opt to foul and give the other team a penalty shot, given that, even tough it is fairly difficult for a keeper to save the ball, it is more common that it appears to be.

    2. Limited Substitutions – As a Brazilian i have been watching soccer games all my life, and tough i don’t have the exact numbers (you see, those are not so important when it comes to soccer) i can tell you from experience that the final minutes of the soccer game are the minutes more likely to see a change in thee score. While you argument that the players are tired in the end of the game, i say that because everybody is tired, the game takes a different shape. If you have a tied or a close game in the final minutes, the teams are eager to score and will give their best attacking, while defending gets harder by the minute. Those tired minutes are where strategies are given up and effort, hustle, and mainly talent dominate the game and make it so beautiful and thrilling to watch.

    3. Playing for a Tie – I’ll give you that. It is simply unacceptable for a team to play for a tie. But since this game is really demanding physically, it would be almost impossible to force an overtime each time a game ended in a tie, and the penalty shootout would loose all it’s magic and excitement if it was such a regular thing. So yes, I agree that this is one of the downsides of this sport and I simply can’t find a way around it.

    4. The Flopping – A few things infuriate me more than soccer players who flop to the turf, roll around for a bit while wailing, then get up and sprint hard after the ball. The fact that it gets referees to make the calls is also very annoying and it is something that FIFA (the federation) should fix in the rules of the game. Maybe advise the referees to punish them with yellow cards if they did so or forcing them to leave the game for a few minutes every time they did that.

    5. The Imprecision of Time – Agreed. Can’t really add on that. It is true.

    Reply

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  8. Posted by Rodrigo Caetano on February 2, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    Well, as my Brazilian friend already did, i would like to congratulate you on your post. Unlike your friedn John, you stated your opinion and defended it fairly and respectfully. With that being said, I can now that i have to disagree with you.

    1 – The Disproportionate Outcome of Fouls

    I can´t really add much more than the others have already said here. The fouls inside the box really needs to be punished differently than the regular fouls, and the penalty kick has worked very successfully so far. Maybe we can discuss the size of the box or other aspects like that, but eliminating the penalty kick I think it´s out of the question.I will not even discuss it´s decisiveness because it already has being brought up here, but i would like to say, as some have said, that penaltys aren´t as easy as they seem. Think about free-throws (i know they are not nearly as decisive as penlaties, but that´s not my point). You see, most people who do not get or play basketball think they are ridiculously easy, but you know it´s not that simple. The NBA (most respected Basketball association in the planet) has players who miss the way too often, and you know that there are experts in the movement you need to make to shoot a free throw, that seems to be just like any other mid-ranged shot. In soccer it is not so simple to score a penalty either. Yes it is fairly easier than a free-kick, but still you have a lot of players who miss them frequently, and a lot of goalies that are experts in saving them.

    2- Limited Substitutions.

    As you yourself have said, the conditioning is a key factor for a soccer player, therefore, the lack of substituions. My brazilian friend also cleverly pointed out that people who have been watching this game since they can remember know that those last final minutes are the period that the score is most prone to change, despite how tires the players are. But another point about the number of susbtitutions is that it is tactical. One of the most important aspects of the substitution is that it makes the game much more tactical and exiting. Coaches need to know exactly who to start, and who to put in a certain period of the game, and who to pull out(because a substituted player can´t come back on the field). How to use the limited substitutions you have is, most of the times, what defines a good coach.

    3 -playing for a tie

    It is hard to desagree with you on this one. Playing for a tie is really something that seems uncompetitive and that goeas against the spirit of sports. But i can´t really imagine soccer without ties. First of all, as people have said, overtimes all the time is out of question, seeing how conditioning is such a big part of this game. Penlaties shootout are special occasions made to determine a winner when there´s really no way around it, but the truth is, the winner of a penalty shootout is not always the best team. And the tie brings a differential to this game and has its positive aspects. The possibility of tie is what sometimes makes a mismatched game so thrilling. Is what makes teams like the North Koreans to actually believe that they can advance in such a difficult group. Do you think that the first-time north koreans really believed that they could beat the five time champions and one of the favorite to win it all Brazil? But they could almost hang on to a tie that woul put them in the same level as the brazilians on the standings and actually give them a chance to stay alive in the competition. Most people think that the tie is simply winning one point in the standings, but what most people fail to see is that, more often than not, a tie is stealing two points from the opponent.

    4- The flopping

    Really can´t agree more with you. It also annoys me how often it happens. I think that the federation should punish this more firmly. I don´t think that yellow cards given by the referee or expelling a players for a few minutes would be the best idea, since the referee mistakes are, for a fact, an interesting aspect of the game. But, after examining video (after the game has ended), fines or suspensions is something to be considered.

    5- Imprecision of time.

    Although it seems that your analogy is true. It has its flaws. When a referee let a play go on for a little bit more time, it is not like he´s saying “but the colts DO have the ball in the red zone”.In football the timing is somewhat precise so letting the play go on because the ball is in the red zone is really unfair. But you yourself said that the time in soccer is not so precise. It is give or take ninety minutes, and the extra time is also an approximation. The whole game is not precise with time so the final whistle only follows this rule. It is not set on stone.

    Reply

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